UK police are targeting potential cyber criminals through a new programme that identifies teenage hackers and encourages them to deploy their expertise for constructive rather than illegal purposes.
The “Cyber Choices” programme, focused on those aged 13 to 22, is modelled on the “Prevent” anti-radicalisation scheme used by counter-terrorism police to divert vulnerable people away from extremism.
Like Prevent, Cyber Choices identifies those at risk, such as youngsters caught committing low-level offences or buying hacking kits on the dark web, and offers them wide-ranging support from social workers, mental health experts and teachers.
The aim of the programme is to channel those with potentially dangerous skills away from lucrative malware attacks into professional programming roles. One young person involved in a pilot version of the scheme has already been hired by a cyber security company in Gloucestershire.
Chief Constable Peter Goodman, lead for cyber crime at the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said the National Crime Agency had identified “hundreds” of young people who could be helped by the programme, either through reports from parents and teachers or suspicious online activity.
“It’s aimed at making sure that we aren’t disproportionate in what we do with young and vulnerable people, who are behaving recklessly and stupidly rather than criminally,” he said on Thursday. “Some have already committed offences under the Computer Misuse Act, but at the very minor end of the scale . . . A lot of the time they don’t realise what they’re doing is wrong in the first place.
“We don’t say, ‘Forget the skills you’ve got’, we say, ‘They’re really helpful and it’s going to give you a really good career’,” Mr Goodman said.
The Home Office has given the NCA funding to access “immersive labs”, or cyber skills teaching websites, which allow keen hackers to test their skills on supervised platforms. Once users have demonstrated their abilities at a sufficient level, they are sent adverts from businesses seeking specialist skills. Police also have access to the labs, so can use the platform as a way of assessing the level of risk posted by individual users.
Mr Goodman said Cyber Choices was based on Prevent but was wary about direct comparisons with the counter-terrorism programme, which has been criticised as a form of police surveillance on vulnerable youngsters who had yet to commit a criminal offence. Officials hope to launch the cyber scheme later this year but 30-40 young people have already been through the pilot.
One difficulty is that many of those who are being identified as at risk are on the autistic spectrum. “They are people who find life difficult but are very competent in the internet world and gain confidence and personality there,” Mr Goodman explained.
If successful, Cyber Choices could help prevent cases such as that of hacker Gary McKinnon, an Aspergers sufferer who narrowly avoided being extradited to the US for accessing Nasa and Pentagon computer systems although he claimed he was looking for evidence of UFOs. Earlier this month 22-year-old Daniel Kelley was sentenced to four years in prison for stealing the data of over 150,000 TalkTalk customers in a huge hack perpetrated in 2015.
The police are boosting resources available to combating cyber crime, with about 1,000 dedicated officers around the country, compared with just 70 seven years ago. Around 100 of these officers work on prevention and will be involved in Cyber Choices when it is rolled out across the UK.